It’s a quiet Friday afternoon, when a dog emerges from the weeds and woods in Port Richmond, quickly hopping into the owner’s car parked on a nondescript street. The coast cleared, a group of teenagers emerge from a sedan parked nearby, and they meander down the same dirt path as the pup. They navigate around a metal gate, which clearly fails to serve its main purpose—keeping trespassers out—and embark down the trail.
The path is overgrown, worn down over the years by trespasser after trespasser, but almost immediately there’s this sense that you’re within proximity to something bigger. That feeling turns into reality when after a few minutes, walls of concrete spring from the dirt, artfully adorned, tagged, and marked in colorful spray paint. It’s a funhouse of art, a manifestation of a counterculture turned mainstream.
And then, past the seemingly endless tunnel of arches, water.
This is Pier 18, a 500-foot-long structure affectionately called Graffiti Pier that jets out onto the Delaware River. In recent years, the abandoned place has become something of a tourist hotspot, ideal for its many good sides, for there is no one way to capture Graffiti Pier.
The thing about Graffiti Pier is even if you’ve never been there, you’ve probably liked a photo or two of it circulating somewhere on the Internet. On Instagram alone, over 1,000 posts have been tagged with some iteration of #GraffitiPier and on any given day, camera-toting spectators snap away.
On this particular November day, Graffiti Pier is quiet and awash in the hue of golden hour, arguably when the pier is as its best. The teens climb a tree—whose trunk and branches are no exception to the graffiti rule—and hoist themselves on top of the massive cement framework. They light up and the smell hangs, until a breeze eventually takes it out to the Delaware.
The view from up here is one of the city’s best: unobstructed shots of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and the Center City skyline are accented by the trees and greenery that have steadily encroached the pier. Unnatural fauna has littered the space, too: condom wrappers, cigarette butts, and beer cans have accumulated all over.
Graffiti Pier once served a purpose outside of Instagram fodder. A relic of Pennsylvania’s coal industry, Pier 18 was used to ship out the fossil fuel which had been transported via rail. In 1976, following the coal industry’s decline, the pier was sold to Conrail, which then abandoned the space in 1991.
Since then, urban explorers have turned the pier into an outdoor art museum, a living, breathing, ever-changing canvas of color and design. Vibrant arrays of Pac Man ghosts accent the precipice of the structure, while layers of tags have rendered certain walls incomprehensible, the rainbow of letters a modern-day hieroglyphic.
“It’s a win for the city: people are organically investing in spaces that have otherwise been left abandoned,” wrote Conrad Benner on his popular street art blog Streets Dept in 2014. “It’s a win for graffiti artists … And it’s a win for people like me, people who love graffiti and who will travel to go see it in spaces like this—in all its glory.”
Given its relative seclusion, the place has become difficult to patrol—the police have mentioned the pier is not a part of their normal patrol due to its remoteness and every year comes with a handful of crime reports. Still, it has simultaneously served as a respite from city life, an enclave where moderate lawlessness is reality.
But with more eyes on Graffiti Pier and the continued redevelopment of the Delaware River Waterfront, the enduring conversation of what to do with the abandoned space has persisted. Just as other areas along the waterfront and beyond have been repurposed and developed, like South Philly’s Washington Avenue Green and Pier 68, the question remains: What will be the fate of Graffiti Pier? And how can that future stay true to the space’s colorful personality?
In the long-term, Graffiti Pier is a part of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation’s (DRWC) master plan under the “Cumberland Park” area of the waterfront, the proposed park that would extend from Cumberland Street north to Allegheny Avenue. While there’s no immediate plans for construction, the DRWC intends to incorporate the waterfront’s industrial history and the existing graffiti to fashion a sort of graffiti museum or other public art monument, says Emma Fried-Cassorla, the director of communications at the DRWC.
Benner would prefer to keep it pretty simple. In his 2014 post, he suggests adding guard rails around the pier and cleaning up the grounds, but largely leaving the space as is.
Earlier this year, interior designer Shila Scarlet Griffith wrote that Graffiti Pier possesses the makings for an urban park, including green space and shade from direct sunlight. While keeping the space open to graffiti artists, she says the pier could be transformed by adding sleek and modern benches, tables, and chairs that juxtapose the existing landscape and formalized areas for hiking and fishing.
To take full advantage of the space, though, Griffith says any redevelopment would have to preserve the art that has made the pier notable.
“There are precedents for this all over the world,” Griffith says, ticking off a list of similar graffiti-laden places like the Lennon Wall in Prague, the Duisburg-Nord Industrial Landscape Park and Priesterweg Nature Park in Germany, M50 in Shanghai, and 5 Pointz, once known as Graffiti Mecca, in Long Island City.
“Redevelopment should take the existing environment into consideration,” she continues. “There’s a reason why this area is already one of the most Instagrammed places in Philadelphia.”
Whatever Graffiti Pier’s fate, it seems imperative to preserve the essence of the art, the character of delinquency. From a rocky alcove a few dozen feet from the pier’s entrance, another group of visitors sit facing Graffiti Pier, separated by a sliver of a river. No one holds a smartphone toward the figure, aiming to capture the vision in front of them. They chat idly, eyes fixed on the decorated concrete in front of them.
There is charm in this natural conversion of future and past, earth and structure, art and audience. And for a few golden minutes on Friday afternoon, not even the haze of an Instagram filter can change that.